Laura Poitras announces early in her Julian Assange documentary Risk: "This is not the film I thought I was making."
"I thought I could ignore the contradictions," the Oscar-winning Citizenfour filmmaker says in a voiceover. "I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They are becoming the story."
Decoding "the story" when it comes to the WikiLeaks founder has never been easy. It's evolving even now, just as Poitras' six-years-in-the-making documentary — one made with rare access to an explosively controversial figure under ever-increasing international pressure — is hitting theaters.
Following WikiLeaks publishing of a trove of CIA hacking documents in March, the Department of Justice is reportedly preparing to seek the arrest of Assange, who has been holed away in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London for nearly five years to avoid extradition to Sweden. On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton blamed "Russian WikiLeaks" for swaying November's election by publishing hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee. (Assange, responding Wednesday on Twitter, told Clinton to "Blame yourself.")
Also on Wednesday, FBI director James Comey, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the FBI had "high confidence" Russia was behind the DNC hacking. Comey said WikiLeaks was publishing damaging "intelligence porn." Assange responded Thursday on Twitter, accusing Comey of lying during his testimony.
'Very complex picture'
Poitras, whose Citizenfour went behind the headlines to reveal NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden, initially hoped that Risk would do something similar for Assange. She was making an intimate documentary about a brave visionary who risks everything in his crusade to make governments transparent. But, like many others who have been confounded by the WikiLeaks founder, Poitras underwent an evolution in her opinion of Assange. It's a journey she documents in the film, running right up until now.
"The ambivalence and struggle, I share that. I did try to let the audience see a very complex picture. And I grapple with it," Poitras said in an interview Tuesday. "For me, I absolutely support and defend their right to publish and I think that they have brought forward extraordinarily important information through their publishing. And I'm also disturbed by some of the things that are said in the film and I didn't want to exclude those things. That's not my job, to paint a simplistic portrait."
Poitras first contacted Assange in 2010 after WikiLeaks published the Collateral Murder video, which showed a U.S. helicopter in Iraq shooting several men, including two Reuters journalists. Poitras, who became focused on making films about post-9/11 surveillance, was welcomed into Assange's inner circle. Risk captures some of the inside drama behind many earth-shattering WikiLeaks publications; it opens with Assange trying to reach Clinton at the State Department ahead of the imminent leak of thousands of diplomatic cables.
It also shows Assange in a bracingly intimate, sometimes surreal way: getting his hair cut by his loyal followers; disguising himself before fleeing to Ecuador's embassy; being interviewed by Lady Gaga. There are hints, too, of the accusations that have often followed him, like that he runs WikiLeaks like its own intelligence agency.
Early reaction to film
Poitras first premiered the film a year ago at the Cannes Film Festival, where it was received largely positively. But some questioned whether Poitras was too closely aligned with her subject. Variety wondered if it was a "glorified fan film." The Guardian labeled it "an embedded report that sacrifices impartiality for access."
"I never define myself as an activist. I define myself as a journalist and a filmmaker," said Poitras. "There's a long tradition of journalism that's first-person perspective. I don't think that journalism is by definition activism. I think it's just stories that are told from a subjective point of view."
But developments that followed that premiere led Poitras to recut her film. She added the voiceovers that question and occasionally distance herself from Assange. She updated the film to include the DNC leak and allegations of a Russian connection, and even late last month went back in to include Attorney General Jeff Sessions vow to make Assange's arrest "a priority."
Numerous alleged victims also came forward to accuse Jacob Appelbaum, a WikiLeaks insider and significant personality in the film, of sexual harassment and bullying. (Appelbaum has denied it.) Poitras added to the film her acknowledgement of a previous relationship with Appelbaum and said he was abusive to someone close to her after their relationship ended. A representative for Appelbaum didn't respond to a request for comment about the film or abuse allegations.
Slate, however, still criticized the updated Risk as "what happens when a filmmaker gets too close to her subject." Yet Risk also repeatedly shows questionable behavior by Assange. In one scene he calls the rape allegation in Sweden, which he has denied, "a thoroughly tawdry radical feminist political positioning thing."
Assange calls film 'a threat'
Poitras has shown him multiple cuts of the film. Before the Cannes screening, he texted her that he considers Risk "a threat" to him personally.
"There were pressuring demands that I remove scenes from the film — that I didn't — that involved what he was talking about in terms of the Swedish case," said Poitras. "I don't think he has legitimate reason to [perceive the film as a threat]."
Assange and WikiLeaks also did not respond to requests for comment.
Citizenfour came about while Poitras was working on Risk. She was contacted by Snowden, who said he wanted to leak NSA documents to her, and she put him in touch with reporter Glenn Greenwald and documented their clandestine meetings in a Hong Kong hotel room.
"I got pulled into the story in a way that I never anticipated. Being pulled into the story led to all different types of conflicts and shifting relationships that happened that are in the film," said Poitras. "I'm part of the story now."
She nearly abandoned the Assange project but, convinced of its value to history, eventually returned to it.
"This is a moment of shifting power dynamics and how the internet is impacting that, for better and for worse," said Poitras. "We have a president now who communicates through Twitter. The film, I think, is trying to capture that historical moment."